Have your normally friendly bunnies suddenly become possessive of their food? Petplan veterinary expert Brian Faulkner explains the causes of the problem and how you can tackle it.
Food is very important to rabbits – in the same way it’s important to all other animals. Naturally, they don’t want to risk losing their lunch.
For some rabbits, however, worries around food can lead to them displaying aggressive behaviours when their owner tries to fill up their bowl with pellets.
Why do rabbits defend their food?
In the wild, rabbits spend a large portion of their day foraging for food. When you give your pet rabbits a bowl of high-value, concentrated food like pellets, they may feel the need to defend it from others, including you and their rabbit companions.
This can lead to aggressive behaviour, including:
- Thumping their back legs
- Bared teeth
- Increased eye contact
- Sitting upright
Rabbits will normally give plenty of warning signs before biting or lunging with their claws. So, be mindful of the more subtle cues that show your rabbits aren’t happy, such as their ears being laid back, their tails being up or their noses twitching faster than normal.
How to deal with food aggression
The easiest way to deal with food aggression is to remove the bowl of food that your rabbits are trying to defend. Instead of placing their daily ration of pellets in a bowl, make mealtimes longer and more interesting for them.
Some ideas to try include:
- Scattering your rabbits’ pellets over grass in their run, or hay in their sheltered area. Alternatively, place their food in two scatter feed piles.
- Making DIY toys and treats that encourage natural foraging behaviour.
- Placing their pellets in activity feeders or a cardboard box with holes cut into it.
- Providing hazel or willow twigs for them to chew on.
Instead of putting your rabbits’ bowl – and your hand – into what your rabbits consider to be their safe place, put the bowl somewhere different, or else put it into the safe place when your rabbits are exercising in their run.
Ensure your bunnies’ diet includes 85% fresh, dust-free hay, 10% leafy greens and only 5% pellets. Also, remember that behavioural changes often take up to four months to become evident. So, don’t expect your bunnies’ food aggression to disappear overnight.
Finally, don’t take your rabbits’ defensive behaviour personally. They are not doing it because they dislike you – they are just afraid that you will take their food away. To strengthen your relationship, invest time in bonding with your rabbits so they feel relaxed in your presence.
When you’re petting your rabbits, feed them long pieces of hay, carrot or other vegetables by hand so they start to learn that approaching hands signify something good rather than threatening. As you develop your bond, you can even start training your bunnies to come when you call them!
Other reasons for rabbit aggression
Your rabbits might be behaving aggressively around their food – but the food might not be the real reason behind their behaviour. Aggression can be caused by many other factors, including:
- Lack of space
- Desire to protect their territory
Another possibility is that your rabbits are simply extremely excited to see their food. If your rabbits are bouncing around and ‘binkying’, they might just be happy and you’ve simply mistaken that behaviour for defensiveness! It’s always important to seek the advice of your vet so they can rule out any potential medical reasons for aggression.
Having the right environment is key to rabbit wellbeing. Alongside the right diet, remember that bunnies need companionship, as well as plenty of space, with a good-sized sheltered area and run, plus plenty of physical and mental stimulation.
If you’ve got any tips and tricks for dealing with food-aggressive rabbits, share them with us on social media using #PethoodStories.